Note: This article contains descriptions of historical trauma related to the residential school system in Canada and may be triggering for some readers.
When we hear about residential schools in Canada, it seems like such a long time ago — and why would it even matter in 2023? When the graves of 215 children at a former residential school site in Kamloops, BC, made national headlines in 2021, it was the first time many Canadians had heard about residential schools. It was a shocking stain on Canada’s global reputation as a wonderful, friendly and welcoming country. But for Indigenous people in Canada, it’s a different story — a truth that we live with everyday.
Residential schools in Canada were government-funded, church-run institutions that took Inuit, First Nations and Metis children away from their families — from as young as three years of age — in order to assimilate them into Euro-Canadian society under the federal government’s policy to kill the Indian in the child. At these schools, Indigenous children were forbidden to speak their languages, their hair was cut, they endured starvation, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, medical, dental and psychological experiments, experienced a loss of identity, culture and community and suffered nuclear family breakdown. In other words, genocide.
Residential schools are a part of Canadian history
Through my art and design, I educate about residential schools because it directly affects me, my family, my community and all Indigenous communities across Canada. And whether they realize it or not, it affects all Canadians, too. It’s not only Indigenous history, it’s Canadian history. It’s part of Canada’s truth. Some of the last residential schools in Canada only closed in 1996, the year I graduated high school while living at Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik, NWT.
My parents are residential school survivors
My Inuvialuk (Inuit) mom and my Gwich’in (First Nations) dad are survivors of the residential school system, which they attended during their formative years: my mom at Grollier Hall and Grandin College and my dad at Stringer Hall — all of which are residential schools in the Northwest Territories. Like most of their generation, this meant being separated from their families and missing out on important opportunities to practice their culture and learn all the things they would have otherwise learned as Indigenous children and youth in previous generations.
It’s not only Indigenous history, it’s Canadian history.
Hearing the stories of residential school survivors
Much of what I know about residential schools is through reading shared experiences and hearing first-hand accounts from survivors, including trusted adults in my community who have shared what they endured.
We were told we should aspire to become more ‘civilized.’
There are stories of extreme physical punishment and degrading abuse, manual labour, medical and dental experiments, sexual abuse, indoctrination of a whole new spiritual belief system, to name a few. There was the humiliation of being told that Indigenous people were dirty and uncivilized, and that our cultural practices were demonic. We were told we should aspire to become more “civilized.”
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered an official apology to survivors, finally acknowledging this long, dark era in Canada’s history. My own official copy of the statement is stored away; kept safely for my children until they’re ready to learn more about residential schools in-depth.
Am I a residential school survivor?
This is one part of my own life story and does not necessarily reflect or represent other survivors, as every student had their own experience and truth about residential schools. My brother and I attended Grollier Hall during our high school years. At that time, it was standard for students to go to Inuvik for high school and reside there as there were no high schools in the smaller outlying communities (or, in my case, my school did not have the academic courses needed to pursue post-secondary education, so I transferred to Grollier Hall). At Grollier Hall we lived an institutional life with daily routines including chores, set meal times, study time and bed times.
Because we were the last generation, I did not experience the physical abuse or horrors that previous generations did. In addition, I was 16 and 17 years of age — much less vulnerable than the young children of previous generations who went through the system. And we had some supervisors who made a positive impact on our lives.
This is not to say that students in my generation didn’t suffer in our own ways or face our own struggles. Many quit school, finding the institutional life and Western education system difficult to navigate with no support from family and community. Those of us who stayed sacrificed time with our parents and caregivers, elders and community, foregoing opportunities to be immersed in what’s left of our culture — missing out on learning to hunt, fish, sew, hear (and become proficient in) our language — in the hopes of succeeding in the Western education system and in a society not designed for us.
At times it was very hard and lonely being away from family, especially at night. We had no personal support except for close friendships. I was lucky to have my brother for support. What also kept me going was my end goal of graduating high school and dreams of attending university, all in the hopes of having a “better” life for myself and my future family.
I call us the in-between generation.
I hesitate to say I’m a survivor because I never want to diminish or take away from those who went through so much worse, those who are unequivocally survivors. Yet, I would never say to any of my peers who attended that they aren’t survivors because I absolutely know that they are. In speaking with some of my peers, we acknowledge and talk about this, whether or not we are survivors and is it OK to say so. I call us the in-between generation. Things were better for us than our parents, but still difficult. I have learned since that we are also intergenerational survivors.
The intergenerational impacts of residential schools
Intergenerational trauma is the trauma experienced by one generation that is passed on to the next generation, affecting their life and experiences. It’s even been studied and concluded that it can alter gene structure. I’m from one of the last generations to have parents who went through the system and had to lock away traumatic experiences, not having healthy coping mechanisms to heal from what was inflicted on our people.
Myself, and many of my generation, were raised in chaotic environments with domestic abuse, poverty, lateral violence, witnessing adults struggle and succumb to addictions, and seeing examples of unhealthy interpersonal relationships. While I didn’t know any other way of living, I knew that this wasn’t normal. These were symptoms of trauma and it was the only way some people knew how to cope, despite the hurt it caused their own loved ones.
As I gained life experiences and learned the broader history of my people, I began to understand the bigger picture. And it was painful. It wasn’t until adulthood that I realized we’re not at fault for what happened, but it’s definitely my responsibility to work with what I know and continue to heal and have compassion for all of us experiencing intergenerational trauma and do better for my children. I’m definitely a survivor, and I didn’t realize that my children are, too. I see the far-reaching impacts affecting them. There is no easy way to teach them and talk about it — and it’s sad to think that, had this been two generations ago, they would have been taken away from me.
Hope for the future
It took a lot of mistakes — poor choices with pain, good choices with growth, research and reflection — to realize there was nothing wrong with me or my people. We have always been an intelligent, capable, valuable, strong people. We survived colonization, residential schools… and the aftermath of those experiences is a response to trauma. While we’re still living with the direct affects, we’re also actively healing, growing and working towards healthier lives and experiencing success in all areas.
Today, Indigenous voices are being heard, appreciated, valued… and we finally have the space to be our authentic selves. We have opportunities to correct and change the narrative, witness and be the representation that is positive and a more accurate portrayal of who we are as contemporary Indigenous people. The generations before us went through so much and worked so hard for us to have this space, make our voices heard, fight for justice — and we owe it to our children and future generations to continue this work. There is still much to be done.
As a Canadian, if you feel that this doesn’t affect you or that it’s old news, please reconsider. Think of me, your favourite Indigenous content creator, other Indigenous people who are friends, neighbours, co-workers, family and community members. We can all benefit and heal from acknowledging the truth and bringing it to light. Something that you can do is learn more about the residential school system through resources and stories online, what it means to be an ally and how we can all move forward in a good way as fellow Canadians. Taima.
To learn more, visit the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation: “Our goal is to honour Survivors and to foster reconciliation and healing on the foundation of truth telling.”
Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 94 Calls to Action: TRC Calls to Action.
The National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available to former students of Indian Residential Schools and their family members 24/7 at 1-866-925-4419.
The Hope for Wellness Helpline is available 24/7 to all Indigenous people across Canada.